Fourth Age of Comics is an excellent blog site that examines modern comic book storytelling with a particular focus on the types of issues superheroes can effectively be used to address. The site extensively examines Grant Morrison’s coverage of animal rights issues during his run as writer on Animal Man (a post I commented on), and provides in-depth, thoughtful and positive reviews of Superman for the Animals and X-Men Unlimited #44, the two comic books I worked on as director of the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program. You can read my commentary on the Superman for the Animals review here on the Fourth Age blog site. I also addressed some general comments in the review regarding different approaches to animal rights activism, and have decided to expand on these thoughts here.
Direct action comics
The review compares Animal Man’s habit of intervening directly, and often illegally, to stop animal cruelty with Superman’s more subtle approach of trying to teach compassion by example.
This is where Animal Man broke down. He never succeeded in inspiring anyone to emulate him, and he tried to face down evil and save the world pretty much all by himself. But Superman knows better. He’s got to redeem us all first. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I agree that ending systemic, culturally acceptable and societally institutionalized animal cruelty—factory farming, vivisection, fur production, circuses, etc.—will require a shift in consciousness and sweeping social change best accomplished through education, outreach and providing positive examples of what a compassionate lifestyle looks like. But the direct and sometimes illegal action of Animal Man still has a point—especially if you’re the individual fox, monkey or dolphin whose life he is saving. (Plus, in cases like the real life raid Animal Man’s lab break-in was based on, stolen videos and records are used to expose experimenters’ cruelty to the public.) Just like there was a place for both the (legal) abolition movement and the (illegal) underground railroad in the effort to end human slavery, there is a place for both The Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Liberation Front in the effort to end animal exploitation, cruelty and abuse.
Taking the die out of diet
The Fourth Age of Comics review of Superman for the Animals also addresses a retelling of the Man of Steel’s origin, Superman: Birthright, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Yu. Published by DC Comics in 2003, three years after Superman for the Animals, it revealed that as a young adult, Clark Kent was a vegetarian (something that, unfortunately, has since been erased from the character’s history).
There, Superman appears as a vegetarian on the ground that he holds all life sacred. I’ve seen this praised by some, and I can certainly see the impetus for that. I disagree with this interpretation of Superman, though. Superman grew up on a farm. He’s seen animals live and die and has probably helped birth and kill a few himself.
I, on the other hand, feel that the evidence that Superman would be a vegetarian is overwhelming. As a hero who is resolute in his unwillingness to take lives; has encountered, shown respect to, and befriended aliens of every conceivable type and form; and may not even possess a biological requirement to eat at all (getting all his nourishment, like his super powers, from our yellow sun, according to some writers), it seems totally inconsistent with Superman’s character that he would eat meat. And as for his upbringing on a farm, seeing firsthand the violent means by which meat makes its way to the table (something most people never witness) is often more of an incentive, not less, for going vegetarian. Howard Lyman is a fourth generation cattle rancher, who was actively engaged in dairy, pork, chicken and cattle production for 20 years in Montana before going vegetarian around 1990. Today, he is a 73-year-old vegan animal welfare advocate, perhaps most famous for being a co-defendant with Oprah Winfrey in an unsuccessful lawsuit initiated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for disparaging remarks Oprah made about hamburger while Lyman was a guest on her show.
In fact, it’s because of transformations like Howard Lyman’s that Mark Waid’s unsuccessful attempt to make Superman a vegetarian in Birthright ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth. In the story, Clark made this dietary choice because of his previously unrevealed (and also since erased) ability to see the auras of living beings. This is similar to writer George Rucka’s 2003 revelation that Wonder Woman was a vegetarian because she could speak with animals. These details seem to portray being vegetarian as some sort of superhuman feat, beyond the realm of mere mortals, despite the fact that millions of people around the world and throughout the centuries have been able to comprehend their interconnectedness with other species, and extend their circle of compassion accordingly, without possessing super powers of perception.
Declaration of humane rights
The review concludes by putting forth the case, echoed by many others, that meat production can be reformed to a point where any moral objections to it would be eliminated.
I cannot conceive of a good argument against eating ethically treated, mercifully killed, and sustainably raised animals, aside from an argument based on aesthetics.
This too, is something with which I must vehemently, and respectfully, disagree. Real-life humans have no more of a biological requirement to consume meat than Superman does (according to the USDA and American Dietetic Association, among others). Therefore, unless no other source of nourishment is available, I don’t see how it can be considered “ethical” to breed, confine, and then kill healthy animals—no matter how little suffering the process causes—just to satisfy a craving or support an industry.
Writer Chuck Austen titled his story in X-Men Unlimited #44 “Can They Suffer?”, from a quote by 18th-19th century philosopher Jeremy Benthem, who cited this as the only question worth considering when determining our obligation as humans to treat other animals humanely. I agree that this is a much more important factor to consider than distinctions such as outward appearance, physical or mental ability and foreign language or behavior. These things should rightfully be irrelevant when determining our moral and ethical responsibilities to others—whether they belong to another race, gender, nation or species. But physical or emotional suffering is not the only factor to consider.
Simply put, I see no reason that the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should belong exclusively to humans. Within our own species, we consider it unethical to imprison others without cause, no matter how hospitable the cell, or even if the prisoner is somehow kept unaware that their freedom has been taken from them. Likewise, what difference would it make to a jury that a killer had taken a victim’s life painlessly while they slept, unaware of their imminent demise? Should the “merciful” method of this act outweigh the fact that it was carried out solely for the killer’s personal pleasure or profit? Should it negate the outrage over the years of life stolen from the victim? (Animals slaughtered for food live just a fraction of their natural life spans.)
If, like me, a being can demonstrate self-interest in their own life, liberty or pursuit of happiness—through some version or another of the flight or fight response we have in common—I can’t justify violating these unalienable rights simply to satisfy my own comfort or custom. I don’t see how it makes any difference whether that being is my neighbor or a neighborhood squirrel. Justice, after all, is supposed to be blind.
This all-inclusive notion of justice is at the core of the superhero ethic. In the 2003 over-sized JLA: Liberty and Justice, written by Paul Dini and beautifully painted by Alex Ross, Aquaman, King of the Seven Seas, essentially delivers an animal rights manifesto (for some reason, 2003 was a very good year for animals in comics):
The heroes of the Earth do not limit their compassion to humans.
Wherever lives are threatened, a champion will fight to save them.
On land or in the sea, the rules are simple.
Those who use force will find it returned in kind—and killing is never tolerated.
If taken literally, Aquaman’s unambiguous and uncompromising declaration should mean that the members of the Justice League of America are as dedicated to thwarting institutionalized animal cruelty as they are to stopping human-on-human crime. Instead, the fact that these words accompany images of Aquaman saving whales from being slaughtered—rather than cows, chickens or pigs—is apparently meant to subtly reassure readers that his warning only applies to popular “celebrity” species, whose lives can be protected without directly impacting those of most humans.
But this interpretation by comic book writers and publishers contradicts the essence of their own creations. From his first appearance in 1938, the future star of Superman for the Animals was proudly proclaimed as a “champion of the oppressed . . . who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.” The persecution of mutants in the Marvel Universe has long been recognized, and often deliberately intended, as a metaphor for all persecuted groups throughout history. That, and the fact that so many mutant superheroes—Wolverine, Beast, Archangel, to name a few—possess animal names and/or characteristics, is why I chose the X-Men as the protagonists for the second Comics for Compassion project. But being aimed at a mostly preteen audience, the stories in these comic books tried to put complex ideas about freedom, rights and responsibilities toward others in much more simple, but no less meaningful terms. On the inside cover of the special Doris Day Animal Foundation edition of X-Men Unlimited #44 (yet another 2003 title), then-president of Marvel Comics, Bill Jemas, shared with his readers what he considered “a simple truth” that his company has stressed “again and again,” ever since Spider-Man’s first appearance nearly 50 years ago.
Heroes are not made by the abilities they possess, but by what they chose to do with those abilities. This is true whether you have the power to climb walls, spin webs, or simply speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.